A continuum of experiences in PE

Every experience should do something to prepare a person for later experiences of a deeper and more expansive quality. That is the very meaning of growth, continuity, reconstruction of experience. It is a mistake to suppose that the mere acquisition of a certain amount of knowledge (and skills) may have this effect.” – John Dewey

What is success in PE?

The answer to this question all depends on what role you think PE has to play in a child’s schooling and their wider education beyond. Whilst there will always be a lack of consensus, one idea that tends to unite people is that PE should contribute to children becoming physically active, in the hope they then become adults who are physically active. That both children and adults see a place for daily movement in enhancing the quality of their life and have the capabilities to access forms of movement that they find meaningful in some personally relevant way.

Seeing success in PE through this lens means that:

  • Children who move outside of PE continue to move, move more or seek out different ways to move.
  • Children who do not move outside of PE find some place for a form of movement in their lives.
  • That no child stops moving outside of PE due to PE itself.

Changing sedentary behaviours to physically active ones is an incredibly complex process (which is beyond the scope of PE in its current format). It takes a whole community to physically educate a child. Due to this complexity, a variety of approaches can be taken to achieve success. Some however are more realistic and appropriate considering the constraints primary and secondary PE operate under, for example in a growing number of schools only having an hour a week. One such approach is to focus on the child’s experience of PE.

Every PE lesson a child attends is an experience of movement, be that whether they are learning about, in or through movement. Each experience can contribute to PE’s success or failure by either encouraging or discouraging children to seek out and try movement beyond PE.

What types of experiences can PE offer children? I asked this question to a group of Year 10 boys during a wet weather lesson. This is what they came up with:

Type of experience Description of experience
Meaningful A transformational moment, repeatedly can lead to a positive change of behaviour.
Useful A good way to spend time, has some utility, repeated experiences might positively change behaviour.
Meaningless A waste of time, repeated experiences might lead to a negative change of behaviour.
Harmful A transformational moment, just one could lead to a negative change of behaviour, perhaps forever.

When asked for clarification what they meant by the different types of experience they offered up the following personal examples:

Meaningful: personal achievement often through accomplishing something or contributing to others progress, being able to rely on others support and encouragement, a sense of belonging.

Useful: playing with friends, winning, being able to have some choice in what we do, solving problems, a teacher believing in you that you can be better.

Meaningless: physical activity that feels disconnected or doing  physical activity just for the sake of being active, learning the same thing every year, inactivity through too much instruction or waiting time.

Harmful: extreme actions by teachers, being made to feel stupid or poor at something by others, severe injury, being wet, cold and miserable.

What this demonstrates is the PE can and does offer a continuum of experiences to children. Those experiences influence how children feel about PE and how they value the place of movement in their lives. Does this mean that the PE curriculum should be guided solely by what children find useful and meaningful? No, we have an obligation as teachers to ensure our pupils are taught in a way that they are well prepared and informed to live a physically active life. However, due to the nature of our subject, part of that is engaging in an ongoing dialogue with them about what they think is useful, personally relevant and meaningful and why. As John Dewey states in his book Experience and Education:

A teacher needs to be intelligently aware of the capacities, needs and past experiences of those under instruction – the plan therefore has to be a cooperative one. Development occurs through reciprocal give and take.

Speaking to children there is a clear asymmetry at the heart of PE; alone it will not change sedentary behaviours into active ones, but alone it can turn active behaviours into sedentary ones. A focus on attending to the experience of PE, without forgetting developmentally appropriate learning needs, might allow it to overcome this clear imbalance. For some children PE might be the only opportunity they have in their whole childhood to engage with different forms of movement. We need to ensure we stop harmful experiences, decrease meaningless ones and increase those that are useful and meaningful. Changing a child’s sedentary behaviours to active ones may take hundreds of cumulative meaningful and useful experiences but changing a child’s active behaviours to sedentary ones can take just a single harmful one.

If we want the education we provide to children to be a continual transforming of experience, meaningful physical education experiences should encourage pupils to search for further experiences of movement, rather than avoiding them.

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